Research Paper By Frederick Cooley
(Executive Coach, USA)
What is hearing and what is listening? What purpose have they served in the evolution of humans? Are there different kinds of listening, and if so, how are they different? What types of research have specifically focused on listening? How can listening be best deployed in order to enhance the connection of two individuals with each other? These are a few of the questions that will be addressed in this review with the intention of broadening your views on what comprises hearing and listening. With the answers to these questions, we will want to look at their application to the profession of coaching as well.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines hearing as: the sense through which a person or animal is aware of sound: the ability to hear. As a fundamental sense, hearing has played an invaluable role not only in the survival of many species but in their evolution as well. For our purposes we will focus on its role in humans. One might hypothesize that hearing has played several key roles in humans’ survival, one of those being the ability to detect the awareness of imminent danger. But interestingly, S.L. Washburn points out in Social Life of Early Man, “The sense of hearing is certainly not of vital help for simian primates in avoiding danger and in escaping predators.” He goes on to point out that since various snakes and other animals can move so quickly and quietly, hearing could not be depended upon for avoiding such dangers. He goes on to indicate that the true role of hearing has been for primates to hear their own sounds, thus creating the opportunity for primates to become the social beings they are.
The ability to hear sounds provided early primates the opportunity for mothers to connect with their young, for members of a group to connect with each other, as well as scaring away potential enemies and territorial rivals. For humans, the amount and variety of sounds allowed for the development of language. Thus a fundamental element of communication evolved from our ability to both create and hear sounds and differentiate those sounds.
As we approach the broader aspect of the communication process, we will now look more closely at what it is to listen. Listening is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as: a) the process of paying attention to someone or something in order to hear what is being said, sung, played, etc. b) the process of hearing what someone has said and understand that it is serious, important, or true.
So when reference is given to listening, it is most likely that one is thinking of the entire process. In other words, that which transcends not only the hearing of sounds related to speaking but to the complete process of understanding what has been spoken or communicated.
It’s interesting to note in Harold A. Anderson’s 1952 article entitled “Needed Research in Listening”, that there was considered to be a paucity of research on the topic of listening at that time. He points out “In comparison with reading, virtually no research has been done on listening.” He goes on to highlight an extensive list of questions that need to be addressed via research in order to expand upon the knowledge of listening. The main intention of his proposed questions was to provide a deeper understanding of how the listening process operates and how it can be positively impacted, particularly to aid in students’ academic performance.
Skipping ahead to 2015, an abundance of research has been accumulated on the topic of listening. A simple Google search related to research on listening will indicate anywhere from a 150 million to over 200 million hits. It’s quite an impressive amount of research compared to Mr. Anderson’s observation in 1952! Given this extensive amount of information, we will obviously narrow our focus to some of the more salient findings that might have more relevance in professional coaching.
Research studies solidly substantiate that when the daily activities are examined of students, housewives, business personnel, government workers and various others, more time is spent on listening than reading, writing or speaking. This research would seem to support what the Greek philosopher, Epictetus (A.D. c. 55 – 135), believed when he stated “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
So it’s evident that we all spend a significant amount of time listening to others. And there are various types of listening that we may deploy dependent on the situation. Although there is some variation in how some have numbered and defined the types of listening, the work that Andrew Wolvin and Carolyn Coakley published in their book entitled “Listening” appears to be quite widely accepted.
They define these five types of listening:
- Discriminative Listening is when the listener is able to discern between what is being expressed verbally versus any nonverbal cues. An example might be if someone indicates that they are happy yet they wear a frown on their face.
- Comprehensive Listening is listening to understand what is being spoken. It’s more than just hearing the words being spoken. This type of listening is important in many settings and particularly when one is attempting to learn something and retain that information.
- Appreciative Listening is caring about and enjoying what is being heard. The listener may have a fondness for the speaker and their topic or enjoy listening to a particular type of music.
- Empathetic Listening involves being able to feel what the speaker is feeling or conveying via their expressions. This type of listening can evolve into conveying or expressing compassion for the one who has expressed him or herself.
- Critical Listening involves listening to not only understand but to be able to form an evaluation or judgment about what has been spoken. This is often thought to be the most complex form of listening.
These types of listening are not necessarily always deployed in a singular fashion but the communication process often involves two or more of these types. In coaching, there’s a high probability that any or all of these types of listening could be observed to varying degrees in a single session. This might very well be what differentiates a good coach from an excellent coach…how and to what extent these types of listening are exhibited.
In addition to examining the types of listening, in the coaching profession a lot of attention is placed on what is often referred to as “active listening”. It is well supported that true listening is active rather than passive. It is something we purposefully and intentionally set out to do. Rogers and Farson, in a classic article on active listening define “active” as meaning: the listener has a very definite responsibility. He does not passively absorb the words which are spoken, but he actively tries to grasp the facts and feelings in what he hears, to help the speaker work out his own problems. (p. 149)
This definition of “active” would seem to apply well to the coaching process whereby the coach attempts to actively understand the client’s perspective and deploy techniques such as offering powerful questions and mirroring back what is heard. This can serve to create an environment in which the client exhibits an increased self-awareness and can identify options for resolving problems.
A component of active listening is the need for focus and concentration. In our current digital world, distractions abound that tend to interfere not only with our ability to concentrate in general, but to specifically listen well. Although many people may express that they have the skill of multi-tasking, evidence continues to mount that suggests that multi-tasking actually interferes with our ability to focus. Meyer and Kieras point out in their research  that it is quite clear that multi-tasking (either doing two or more things simultaneously or switching rapidly between tasks) has a negative impact on overall productivity as well as the quality output of the tasks. With this evidence in mind, it would seem rather obvious that to listen well, one must focus and concentrate intently on the speaker.
Another description of the listening process is nicely articulated in the definition that Borisoff and Purdy described:
Listening is the active and dynamic process of attending, perceiving, interpreting, remembering, and responding to the expressed (verbal and nonverbal) needs, concerns, and information offered by other human beings.
They go on to note that listening is a critical linking process to developing relationships with others. It’s also our primary means of intellectual growth and development. We learn when we listen. Although it’s through speaking that we manipulate and control our environment, listening provides us the input and insight as to how we can direct our speaking to manage our environment. Thus, listening functions to serve our most basic human needs. It is key to learning, developing relationships, conducting business by understanding clients’ needs and interests as well as being crucial to many other daily activities. And within the coaching process, it’s widely accepted that building a trusting relationship with one’s clients is paramount.
Having established the critical importance that listening plays in our lives and professions, what can we do to develop and improve in this area? Many have observed over the years that more attention needs to be applied to the topic of providing education to improve our listening skills. Lee Iacocca, in his autobiography, alluded to the importance of good speaking. However, he also says: “I only wish I could find an institute that teaches people how to listen. After all, a good manager needs to listen at least as much as he needs to talk. Too many people fail to realize that good communication goes in both directions.”
Regarding the resources and methods available for enhancing our listening skills, there are literally thousands of references that one can access. These would include books, training programs, teleclasses and webinars, to name a few. Although the purpose of this paper is not to provide any recommendations in this regard, the reader is encouraged to explore the resources that might best serve his or her interests in this area.
With so many resources available and varying perspectives, the following guidelines introduced by Osland and colleagues , seem to offer some concise considerations relative to how to be a better listener:
listener accepts the person for what he or she is without making judgments of right or wrong.
Paraphrasing the Content
key to paraphrasing is listening intently to what the other party is saying.
Reflecting the Implications
indicating to the speaker your appreciation of where the content is leading.
Reflecting Underlying Feelings
brings into the open some of the underlying feelings, attitudes, beliefs, or values that may be influencing the speaker to talk in this way.
Inviting Further Contributions
communicate interest in hearing more.
Using Nonverbal Listening Responses
consistent eye contact, open body posture, leaning toward the speaker, head nodding, and receptive signals (depending on culture)
Given these considerations, it should be obvious that good listening requires effort and some might even suggest that it’s hard work, but it has significant value.
Throughout this paper, we have explored some of the differences between just hearing something and listening. We’ve noted how the listening process has evolved in humans and why it serves such a critical role in all of our lives and is essential to thriving in an environment with others. Although there had been a paucity of research done in the area of listening, abundant resources are now available to assist us in not only understanding the topic better but improving our own listening skills as well. And certainly the mission for coaches should be to maintain a continuous focus on improving their listening skills to better connect with and serve their clients.
 "Hearing." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 13 Jan. 2015. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hearing>
 Washburn, S. L. Social Life of Early Man. New York: Distributed through Current Anthropology for the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, 1961. Print.
 "Listening." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 13 Jan. 2015. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/listen>
 Title: Needed Research in Listening
Author(s): Harold A. Anderson
Source: Elementary English, Vol. 29, No. 4 (APRIL, 1952), pp. 215-224
Publisher(s): National Council of Teachers of English
 Review. n.d.: n. pag. Listening Facts. Laura Janusik, Ph.D., Rockhurst University. Web. 14 Jan. 2015. <http://d1025403.site.myhosting.com/files.listen.org/Facts.htm>
 Wolvin, Andrew D., and Carolyn Gwynn. Coakley. Listening. Dubuque, IA: W.C. Brown, 1982. Print.
 Rogers, C. R., & Farson, E. F. (1986). Active Listening. In W. Haney, Communication and Interpersonal Relations (pp. 149–163). Homewood, IL: Irwin.
 Meyer, D. E. & Kieras, D. E. (1997a). A computational theory of executive cognitive processes and multiple-task performance: Part 1. Basic mechanisms. Psychological Review, 104, 3-65.
 Borisoff, Deborah, and Michael Purdy. Listening in Everyday Life: A Personal and Professional Approach. Lanham, MD: U of America, 1991. Print.
 Iacocca, L. (with W. Novak). (1984).(p. 64). Iacocca: An Autobiography. New York: Bantam
 Osland, Joyce, Irwin M. Rubin, and David A. Kolb. "8." Organizational Behavior: An Experiential Approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. N. pag. Print.